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The lie direct

02 September 2016

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WHAT is the first lie you told that was parentally approved? Was it that you liked the multi-coloured socks that Granny gave you for Christmas? That your uncle’s disco dancing was cool? We learn to tell “white lies” from an early age so as to oil the rusty cogs of domestic sociability.

Dr Sam Harris is a philosopher and neuroscientist, and he does not approve. In The Truth About Children Who Lie (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), he took the zero-tolerance approach: parents should never lie to their children, and should never approve of it in their children. And that means no Tooth Fairy, and no Santa Claus. His point is that we give mixed messages to our children about lying which are potentially damaging to their emotional development.

By contrast, the writer Ian Leslie is sanguine: you should celebrate a child’s first lie — it shows that he or she has evolved that sophisticated Theory of Mind which puts us ahead of the primates, although one might ask whether the first childhood lies, which entail saying no when the truthful answer would be yes, require anything more than a basic instinct for self-defence.

The guru when it comes to the academic study of mendacity is Dr Victoria Talwar, of McGill University. She has employed a “peeking-game” test to assess the trustworthiness of children from a variety of backgrounds, and her work appears to support the liberal line: children brought up never to lie are in fact much more likely to do so than those from whom it is occasionally allowed.

Another example of the adaptive potential of the psyche was examined last week in The History Hour (World Service, Saturday), which focused on so-called Stockholm Syndrome, and the episode that gave the phenomenon its name. In August 1973, a violent bank robbery in the Swedish capital morphed into a siege, during which several hostages were held. During the six-day stand-off, a number of the prisoners formed strong emotional attachments to their captors, which lasted for many years.

We heard from the hostage Kristin Enmark, whose criticism of police tactics during the siege so shook the public. Her moment of greatest collusion came when, in an attempt to show that they were serious about committing violence, the captors threatened to shoot a fellow hostage in the leg. Kristin’s words of encouragement were: “But Sven, it’s only in the leg.”

In the end, they did not shoot Sven in the leg, and the siege ended without significant injury; and it prompts the question why the behaviour of Kristin and her comrades should be seen as so peculiar, when their “strategy” of appeasement succeeded.

Radio 4 ran a peculiar series of interviews last week, in which one of the interlocutors was dead. Unforgettable (weekdays) enables the living and the dead one last encounter, through the genius of the producer, Adam Fowler, and some clever manipulation of archive material. I am pleased to report that at least Mary Whitehouse (Tuesday’s interviewee) is just as difficult beyond the grave as she was this side of it.

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